There's something about Paris that makes me a little uneasy in trying to talk about it. This was my third trip to Paris, and like the first two, it was very brief and focused on visiting the standard tourist venues. I don't make any excuse for that, the standard tourist venues being quite magnificent. But there is an overall grandeur to the place that makes it both daunting and irresistible, and also arouses a certain envy out of not having been born a Parisian.
It's that last impression that's hard to justify. How can you know anything about a place from having seen only its most prominent monuments? I can perhaps lay claim to a little something more through some superficial acquaintance with its literature--Stendahl, Balzac, Hugo, Proust. Over the years I've been through histories and essays and studies (Anthony Beevor's Paris after the Liberation stands out as a recently-completed account of a particularly tumultuous time in recent history; John Russell's Paris is a well-written, well-illustrated large format book I'd also highly recomment).
That arguably promotes me to a bookish tourist, with a fair capacity to read French and rather laughable speaking skills. Nevertheless, the place has an allure that's hard to describe. When I first visited, as a college student, my first impression that that this was what I expected Rome to be like. And when I got to Rome I immediately felt the difference. Paris is an old city, but what one sees, at least in a quick trip, is the great nineteenth century capital, or at least the grand nineteenth century embellishments which overlay the older city.
We stayed in a hotel on the Rue de Tronchet, just north of the Eglise de la Madeleine, a kind of replica of the Parthenon. It was originally to be dedicated by Napoleon to la gloire of the Grande Armee, but after the his fall it was returned to the Church (where an earlier church dedicated to Mary Magdalene had once stood). Like many churches, pillars and monuments it occupies a place with long sight lines (like Saint-Augustin above), to display it to full advantage.
On my first two trips I spoke not a work of French, a distinct disadvantage. Not that you can't get by in English; practically everyone who deals professionally with tourists will speak flawless English. This third time my earnest, halting French was practically everywhere met with some level of English superior to my French, with no apparent Brownie points for my sincere efforts. It's a big, busy city, so it's brusque and impatient, at least on the street.
Which is not to say that I every really encountered the proverbial rudeness of the French. Honestly, I've never been treated with any degree of bad manners anywhere in France, and I wonder if the common tales of Gallic affront may have their origin in a commonly-seen oversees American sense of entitlement that quite naturally evokes a less-than-friendly response. I've always been treated well (In fact, on my first trip, I was taken for a beggar and given a franc in the Louvre, which says more for them than it does for me. I gave it back, with what was then my only French word, merci.
The book review in this morning's New York Times notes an anthology of pieces by Joseph Roth, The Hotel Years. I recently purchased what is probably Roth's best-known novel, Radetzkymarsch and hope to start it sometime this year. Born in Slovenia, educated in Vienna, Roth first came to Paris in 1925. A great lover of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic stew of the vanished Hapsburg empire, Roth ended up, after stints in Russian and Albania, back in Paris, a refugee from the coming Nazi horrors. He described Paris as "free, intellectual in the best sense, and ironic in the most majestic pathos." No paradise, of course. Roth drank himself to death, probably intentionally, in 1939. But his words describe the Paris that's not available to the casual tourist, and possibly not available to to the non-Parisian in any case--but which, nevertheless, adds to the city's beautiful and terrible allure.